by Hannah Gais
As the Obama administration winds down its final term, Vice President Joe Biden has started his own lecture tour of sorts.
Last week, the vice president appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations to discuss the administration’s foreign policy legacy. The speech, which drew heavily on an article by Biden in Foreign Affairs, contained few surprises. The vice president did, however, revive a term he used during his Senate days in the run-up to the Iraq War. In a discussion of the administration’s avoidance of a “significant use of military force,” Biden noted, “No foreign policy can be sustained without the informed consent of the American people.”
The phrase “informed consent” has become a sort of mantra for Biden, so much so that he effectively recycled the quote several times over the years. It has its roots long before the Obama years—specifically in the run-up to and aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “I said a year ago, and I’ll say it again, no foreign policy can be sustained in this country without the informed consent of the American people,” Biden noted in 2003 during an event at the Brookings Institution on U.S. policy toward Iraq. “I think we learned that lesson in Vietnam, but we haven’t applied it in Iraq.”
It became a staple in Biden’s particular approach to the Iraq War. Just one month prior, he applied the phrase as U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq began to falter. “It’s time the president leveled with the American people,” he said, for when it came to explaining the need for long-term investing in the country’s stability, “informed consent” was crucial. Indeed, in 2005, “informed consent” became the undertaking that would grant the American people the chance to give “the president the time we need to succeed.” (On a practical policy level, that meant a push for detailed status reports and frequent follow-ups.) As Biden noted in 2007, building consensus through, again, an “informed” American public was necessary for finding a way forward in a war-torn Iraq.
Considering that Obama—at least in the early years—so consistently defined himself in opposition to Bush’s botched invasion, it’s no surprise that the phrase has cropped up over the past seven-plus years. Yet in the age of drones and increased strategic reliance on Special Forces operations—or, for that matter, secretive trade negotiations—what does it even mean to advertise your policy of “informed consent”?
In theory, the force Biden sees sustaining governance should be central to every administration—consent is the bedrock of any representative government. The notion of being “informed” has, however, taken on new meaning the aftermath the Bush years. Indeed, the Obama administration promised greater overall transparency. As the president wrote in a memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act, all government agencies should “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” so as to “usher in a new era of open Government.” The White House not only drew on Justice Louis Brandeis’s notion of the metaphorical purifying capacity of sunlight, but also the administration’s favorite Silicon Valley friendly model: crowdsourcing.
Try as they might to make the White House lore surrounding Obama’s “historically” transparent administration true, the spin machine has run into its fair share of detractors. Journalists have complained about access to the White House and the quality of press conferences. The administration has also pursued a campaign against whistleblowers.
But the administration’s larger problem concerns the covert realms of the national security state. Although some of administration’s more clandestine activities have decreased in recent years—such as drone strikes in Pakistan—its record hasn’t improved on the whole. In the last year of his presidency, Obama has expanded surveillance powers, bolstered a Saudi-led war in Yemen, and continued to expand covert operations in Syria and Iraq. Even its attempt to “come clean” on civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes was woefully incomplete—if not downright inaccurate. It’s one thing to argue that these policies are necessary; it’s another to argue they’re in line with—or at the very least, not in contradiction to—eight years of promises regarding opening up the government to further public scrutiny.
Biden’s consistent refrain of “informed consent” demonstrates a long-standing ideological fissure between Obama’s high-flying rhetoric and the nitty-gritty of a post-9/11 world. Biden began using the phrase at a time when the United States was decidedly at war—with Iraq, Afghanistan, and more vaguely, terrorism. Both the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Obama’s declaration in 2013 that the “war on terror” was officially over signaled a rhetorical pivot. The Bush administration engaged in military conflicts large enough to warrant significant public debate. The Obama administration has largely skirted the issue by avoiding consent, informed or otherwise.
Hannah Gais is a New York-based writer with recent bylines in Al Jazeera America, First Things, U.S. News and World Report and more. She is an audience development associate at The Baffler, a nonresident fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and the executive director of The Eastern Project. Formerly, she was the assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association.